N.S. mass shooting probe hears of higher police education standards in other systems

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HALIFAX — The public inquiry into Nova Scotia's mass shooting heard Wednesday how police education in Finland far exceeds RCMP levels — as experts call for major reforms to RCMP training.

Kimmo Himberg, who retired last year as the rector of the National Police University College in Finland, told the commission each officer has a minimum of three years' training at the university before they are enrolled in the force that keeps the peace in the nation of about 5.5 million people.

The former police officer provided the description during a roundtable discussion on police preparation for critical incidents, which is part of the inquiry into the April 18-19, 2020, murders of 22 people by a gunman.

The inquiry has heard criticism of RCMP performance on issues that included confusion over who was in command of the response, the inability to open aerial mapping that showed potential escape routes and failures to issue timely warnings to the general public.

Himberg said he believes Finland's minimum three years of university-level, specialized police training have become central to the high level of public trust in the service in his nation and has improved research into public safety.

"In Finland, national trust in the police force is, according to international measurements, the highest in the world," he said, also citing the Finnish Ministry of Interior’s 2020 survey that indicated 91 per cent of respondents trust the police "a lot or a fair amount."

Finland's university program includes a lot of theoretical content, he said, "and we put a special emphasis on values and attitudes in the education."

To date, most of the officers involved in the mass shooting response have described their core training as the 26 weeks at RCMP Academy in Regina, usually referred to as "Depot." Some have also said they took additional courses lasting several weeks to become qualified for specialized roles.

The retired Finnish educator didn't comment on the Nova Scotia mass shooting during the discussion, but several former police officers said in interviews with The Canadian Press they believe shortfalls in the police response signal that Canada must move to a more in-depth, uniform education system for all officers.

David Cassels, who served as chief of police in Winnipeg during his 30-year career, said in an interview on Wednesday that "police officers need a much broader education, and education to help them deal with the complex issues of today."

Cassels, who is the volunteer president of the recently formed Coalition for Canadian Police Reform, is urging the creation of a "college of professional policing" similar to those that exist for doctors and nurses, to set standards for police education that could mean recruits spend approximately two years studying policing skills.

"Most of what is taught in (RCMP) Depot and all other basic police training institutions ... is traditional, firearms, driving, marching, legislation, policy, control tactics," he said in a followup email.

"All of the issues that the Mass Casualty Commission is hearing about today — commanding high-risk incidents, debriefings, and responding to critical incidents are not taught to most operational police officers." Expanding the education and including standards around responding to mass casualty events would improve responses, "and in fact may prevent the significant loss of life," he wrote.

Scott Blandford, a former officer with the London, Ont., police, said in an interview Wednesday that he believes Canadian governments need to define "a set of competencies" for all police officers that would result in higher levels of police training before they're hired.

The assistant professor of public safety at Wilfrid Laurier University said this could mean a blended model where there is an academic component to the training — taught in universities and colleges — along with apprenticeships with police forces.

He said he views the RCMP as a "military, hierarchical organization that's strong on command and control," with a tendency to promote officers based on years of service rather than competencies.

He also said he believes the Mounties' corporate culture doesn't embrace education from outside their own institutions.

However, Supt. Wallace Gossen, an officer with York Regional Police, said during the roundtable that there is progress being made by the Canadian Police College in teaching common approaches to responding to critical incidents to police officers from across the country.

Gossen, who teaches courses to train critical incident commanders, said he has a checklist he's developed that help overcome the stress that unfolds during the crises.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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